Mes Aynak, Afghanistan - Ruins dot each hilltop in mountainous Mes Aynak, an hour's drive south of the capital Kabul. Buddhist monasteries stood here for hundreds of years, and Afghan workers under the supervision of archaeologists are racing to uncover remnants of the past.
The four-square-kilometre site contains the remains of 2,000-year-old villages, but archaeologists say they believe the area has likely been inhabited for 5,000 years. Green-tinged rocks are everywhere: in the ancient walls, jutting out of the ground. That's because this is one of the most copper-rich spots in the world.
It's also why archaeologists have a sense of urgency to uncover Mes Aynak. The mining rights to the area have been sold to a Chinese company in a $3bn deal, Afghanistan's largest commercial contract.
The copper will be extracted from this area. They will blow up these mountains to get to it.
The prospect of mining threatens the ancient site.
"The copper will be extracted from this area. They will blow up these mountains to get to it," explains Afghan archaeologist Mohammed Rabi Sabiri.
He is helping preserve what is being uncovered here. "It's clear there is pressure, but we continue to work here. The work you see here should have taken 10 years, but we have done it in four years, and we keep on working."
Buddhist statues of all sizes have been found in the dozen monasteries, some with astonishing details - one is colourful, still vividly painted on the front and back. Another has its centuries-old gold gilding largely intact.
A selection of statues, pottery and other articles found is on display at the National Museum in Kabul. They are made of wood, clay, copper and gold. Many artefacts remain in storage. There are plans to build another museum in Logar province, close to Mes Aynak, but building has not begun.
At the site itself, life-size clay statues are kept under plastic, protecting them from snow, wind and rain until archaeologists can apply special chemicals to harden the clay so they can be safely moved intact. The monasteries are dotted with ancient stupas, constructed with intricately laid rock. The bases of these Buddhist shrines were likely once home to relics, the painted plaster that once covered them has mostly worn off. Here and there, some clay details remain.
|Afghan archaeologist Mohammed Rabi Sabiri is helping restore clay statues and other artefacts [Jennifer Glasse/Al Jazeera]
Archaeologist Philippe Marquis, with the French organisation DAFA (La Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan), has been excavating since the site was reopened in 2009. He says Mes Aynak is crucial to understanding what was happening in the region from the first to seventh centuries AD.
"We know there was a very important commercial network in this area which is called the Silk Road. So we think that this Silk Road could also have been a Buddhist road - and could have been also a copper road," Marquis explains.
That is what makes the site unique, he says. "What is specifically very interesting on this site is connection between the Buddhist monasteries and the copper mining. Until now it's something that had never really been worked on.
"So I think that everything we are getting from this site is going to be fresh information, very new data about a period, philosophical movement, Buddhism, and specifically it's going to add a lot of things about the ancient history of this country."
With prospects of copper mining looming large, its a race against time for the archaeologists. But it seems they would have more time than they had orginally thought. There's already a camp of white buildings with bright blue roofs surrounded by hectares of green fencing dotted with guard towers. It all sits empty right now. There's no electricity or water supply to the camp; the guard towers are empty. The area still needs a main road and a railway to get the copper out, and there's no sign that construction is under way.
The United Nations' cultural arm, UNESCO, is also stepping in to help the excavation project.
"We want to preserve and protect the maximum possible what is there," says UNESCO director general Irina Bokova. "At the same time we understand that economic development is a problem for the country. The good news is, I think, we have some time, probably some three years to work on this."
On a two-day visit to Afghanistan in May 2013, Bokova secured the cooperation of the Afghan Ministries of Culture and Mining, as well as funding from the World Bank, to ensure preservation continues at Mes Aynak.
The 'Pompeii of Afghanistan'?
The site has the potential to become the Pompeii of Afghanistan, where visitors could walk through the monasteries and the nearby communities that supported this once-thriving area. But the planned mine and the precarious security situation in Afghanistan makes that an impossibility for now.
|From the perspective of one neighbourhood in Herat
Afghan archaeologist Omar Sultan first visited Mes Aynak in the 1970s, when he says everything was still under the soil. He's now the liaison between the Afghan government and those at the site, and is realistic about what can be achieved here.
"In order to save this we have to remove all of these things ... so that the people of Afghanistan can see that this is what it was, and this is what we saved."
Sultan says there's nothing wrong with allowing mining to progress here, even if it means the ancient structures of Mes Aynak will be destroyed. The key, he says, is to learn as much as possible from the site and ensure the information and as many artefacts as possible are preserved and shown to the people of Afghanistan.
But even that will be a challenge, Marquis says. "One of the problems of today's Afghanistan is there is still not enough capacity locally to deal with management of cultural heritage," he explains.
"Cultural heritage is something which is fragile - something that needs to be cared about. And if we don't care about [it] properly, I would say it is all part of a memory which are going to be erased, but erased forever."